From “Noah” to “Exodus: Gods & Kings,” 2014 was supposed to be the year that Hollywood found religion.
Though the faithful have flocked to the multiplexes at times, proving that films that embrace the Bible and its teachings can find an audience, the conversion hasn’t always been smooth.
“These movies do draw an audience, but they’re expensive to make,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “These films are still finding their way and trying to find the right voice, and they’re going to have to watch the bottom line.”
“Exodus” could end up being a success for 20th Century Fox, if it does robust business overseas and builds an audience over the Christmas holiday, but the film opened to a mediocre $24.5 million. With a production cost of $140 million plus tens of millions of dollars in advertising and marketing costs, it faces a long road to profitability.
Likewise, “Noah” earned $362.6 million globally, but carried a production budget of $125 million. Those aren’t the kind of margins Hollywood likes to see after theater owners get their cut.
With 77% of Americans identifying as Christians, Hollywood sees a big audience for these kind of films.
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“The Bible is a hot commodity,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “The secret is to start small, keep the budget manageable and get into grassroots marketing.”
Those were the ingredients that made “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven Is for Real” and “Son of God” such impressive hits. “God’s Not Dead” earned $62.6 million on a $2 million budget, “Heaven Is for Real” picked up $101.3 million on a $12 million budget and “Son of God” pulled in $67.8 million on a $22 million budget. The foreign box office, where the effects-heavy “Exodus” and “Noah” play well, was a non-entity in these films’ successes, but by keeping costs low, they remain attractive investments.
Christian-themed films without the plagues and floods also largely avoided the questions of biblical accuracy that bedeviled the Old Testament adaptations.
“Hollywood needs to do what they do for any market segment,” said Chris Stone, founder of the market research firm Faith Driven Consumer. “Just as they would for a Hispanic or African-American or LGBT market, they need to have an intimate understanding of our group and need to engage us where we are and tell our story in a way that resonates with us.”
It’s easier said than done, however. Films such as “The Identical” and “Left Behind” were pitched at faith-based crowds, but failed to register at the box office.
The high watermark for biblical entertainment remains “The Passion of the Christ,” which made $612 million on a $30 million budget and was directed by Mel Gibson, a devout Catholic. Gibson’s religious beliefs helped him reach out to Christian moviegoers, analysts say, in a way that “Noah” director Darren Aronofsky and “Exodus” director Ridley Scott, neither of whom were believers, could manage to do.
“Everybody was happy when they hired a female director to make ‘Wonder Woman,'” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Maybe Christian directors should be making some of these movies.”